Idaho’s school diversity history is unique to national trends

The Associated Press recently ran a story on student diversity in public charter schools under the headline, “US charter schools put growing numbers in racial isolation.” The story reported that “more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number had been rising steadily.” The story goes on to argue that public charter schools are at least partially to blame for the re-segregation of public schools across the country.

Terry Ryan

The AP piece has been panned by a variety of voices and perspectives from across the political spectrum. The former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools Howard Fuller rejected the AP’s “criticism of isolated charters.” He went on to say imbalances “reflect deep-rooted segregation” that track larger societal changes like the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans in many cities, and shifting housing and economic trends.

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform, says “AP makes apples to oranges comparisons that contrast the demographics of individual charter schools to those of entire cities. This ignores the blatantly obvious fact that charter schools are concentrated in neighborhoods with high proportions of students of color to provide them an alternative to the low-performing traditional public schools they previously had no choice but to attend.”

Education researcher Robin Lake notes that “kids attending racially concentrated charter schools…come from equally concentrated district schools.” She continued, charters are “locating in majority-minority low-income neighborhoods and serving the at-risk kids who live there. Los Angeles is about 80 percent Hispanic and New Orleans is more than 80 percent black.”

And, most importantly, parents are making a choice for where they want their children to attend school. This is counter to the social engineering efforts of the 1970s and 1980s when children were bussed across urban school districts in an effort to create racially balanced schools. Many white families reacted to this by fleeing their cities entirely. They made a choice to move and it left behind those who couldn’t afford to move. This was a boon to urban school districts across the country, but disastrous to urban school districts in cities like Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis.

Idaho’s history with segregation, desegregation and charter schools is different. First, Idaho for most of its history has been overwhelming white. The state ranks 49th, behind only Vermont and Montana, in the percentage of citizens that are African-American. But, Hispanics account for 12.2 percent of the population, and make up the state’s fastest growing demographic. According to U.S. Census information “Hispanic population increased 2.9 percent from mid-2014 to mid-2015 to 202,430.”

In Idaho, critics have accused public charter schools of pulling the highest performing students out of their traditional public-school classrooms and creating student populations that do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. In 2015, a Boise-based organization, Centro de Communidad y Justicia, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s (US DOE) Office of Civil Rights. According to that complaint, “Idaho’s charter school system has evolved into an unequal public-school system that discriminates against students of color, LEP students, students with disabilities (many of whom are Latino), and students from low-income families.” The hard charging US DOE’s Office of Civil Rights under President Obama never acted on this complaint apparently finding little merit in it.

While it is true that public charter schools in Idaho can and should do more to serve all students who wish to enroll, as Table 1 demonstrates, charters as a whole are nearly equal in diversity to Idaho’s two largest school districts, West Ada and the Boise School District.

Table 1: Student Demographics, Sampling of 3 Big Districts and Public Charters (2015-16)

  # of Students % Low-Income % Hispanic % White
Idaho State Average 287,588 46% 18% 76%
West Ada School District 37,393 23% 10% 82%
Boise Independent District 25,927 36% 12% 76%
Nampa School District 14,852 68% 35% 61%
ID Public Charter School Average 21,013 35% 10% 82%

Data comes from the Idaho Department of Education

Public charter schools are about giving education options to families and parents. They are not about forcing parents to send their children to a particular school, nor are they about keeping certain groups of children out of particular schools. Parents should be the final arbitrator as to what school or schools work best for their children. This gives parents more voice, not less.

Written by Terry Ryan, the CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and the Idaho Charter School Network.

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